What Ambrose Knows

The fantasy world of a British hack in Washington.

When they are not out covering major international events such as the Boston “Nanny Trial,” most British correspondents in America spend their time rewriting American newspapers and watching CNN. This is why British journalists rarely become known among the Americans they are supposed to be covering. Occasionally, a Fleet Street hack does manage to attract a following among the natives. The most obvious means: playing the Stage Brit, like Alastair Cooke does. An alternative (but not mutually exclusive) technique is sucking up to powerful Americans on the Washington party circuit.

Some British correspondents even exploit their dinner-table acquaintances to get stories. The late Henry Brandon of London’s SundayTimes cultivated Washington statesmen and turned up a series of Cold War scoops that earned him a Watergate wiretap. Later, Brandon’s wife became social secretary in the Reagan White House. Not all British hacks use their natural talent for social climbing so productively. Anthony Haden-Guest, a New York-based expatriate, is better known as the model for the Brit in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities than for any story he has written.

Other British visitors earn notoriety in the United States for their flip quips or clever observations, often delivered in a superior tone that sneers at the Wild West mores of the former colonies. A handful of Brits have managed to find prominent billets for themselves in the U.S. press by sneering and smarming simultaneously. You know who you are.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, a correspondent for London’s SundayTelegraph who recently was reassigned from Washington to Brussels, adopted none of these tired strategies–to his credit. Instead of cozying up to the Washington establishment, he sought out the companionship of the political opposition. The problem is that opposition leaders peddle as much self-serving rubbish to the press as the people in power do. But Ambrose switched his bullshit detector off before he left the mobile lounge at Dulles Airport.

The grandson of a U.N. ambassador, Ambrose (I’ll call him that in the interests of brevity and condescension) had worked his way into Fleet Street through a traditional route. After Cambridge, he hauled himself off to a remote Third World hot spot, where he risked his life for pathetic wages and career-enhancing bylines. His stuff was highly regarded and–according to my vague recollection–rightly so.

Ambrose must have spent a bit too long in the jungle, however, because his judgment deserted him when he landed in Washington. As this ridiculous attempt at a Clinton exposé demonstrates, Ambrose arrived in America–and left America–under the impression that journalism here is practiced the same way that journalism is practiced by foreign correspondents in the Third World. In places like Central America, Western journalists learn that often, the only facts available are rumors. A lot of Third World rumors involve violent schemes of competing warlords, or their personal foibles. Conspiracy is a way of life, and the most devious and ruthless rule the day.

There are some superficial similarities between the political culture in Arkansas, where Ambrose spent a fair amount of time, and the political culture of Haiti or El Salvador. Economic power in Dogpatch is concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite. Political leaders must heed the wishes of powerful businessmen. Law enforcement is corrupt and inefficient, and rumor is the currency of political discourse.

But there are also differences between the Third World and the United States, and these differences apply, in some measure, even to Arkansas. Federal and local law-enforcement agencies sometimes do perform efficiently. And when they don’t, they write down a lot of embarrassing stuff that enterprising journalists can get their hands on. Also, Americans sue each other over even the most picayune disputes, and extensive records of all those disputes are available to the public. What this means is that in the United States–even in Arkansas–there is a plethora of resources available for journalists to verify the truth of any particular rumor. If there’s no paper, there’s a fair chance the rumor isn’t true.

Frequently, the problem is that there is a stack of contradictory paper documenting a scandal or a controversy. In that case, it’s the journalist’s duty to track down all available evidence and make judgments about plausibility and credibility. Whether out of snobbery or out of sloth, Ambrose seems never to have picked up on the fact that collecting and evaluating contradictory evidence requires a lot more work than does sorting through contradictory rumors.

The SundayTelegraph is one of Britain’s more sober and literate newspapers. So when its editor published stories from Washington larded with unverifiable gossip and paranoid speculations about President Clinton, Ambrose became a cult figure among elements of the Republican right and in the rumor-driven subculture of the Internet and talk radio. Undoubtedly Ambrose and his adherents–and he does have a following–are sincere in their belief that the sordid truth about Clinton has been suppressed by a liberal and celebrity-obsessed American corporate media. One of Ambrose’s admirers, a prominent British pundit, once suggested to me that by peddling gossip and conspiracy theories about the Clintons, Brits like Ambrose were performing the same kind of public service that American reporters did when they violated the British press taboo that had suppressed news about Edward VIII’s affair with American divorcee Wallis Simpson.

If Ambrose had really come up with something original and credible, then this might be true. But anything believable in Ambrose’s portfolio–such as his account of Clinton’s friendship with Dan Lasater, the coke-sniffing stockbroker–was first published somewhere in the “mainstream” U.S. media. I’ve looked through Ambrose’s work in America, and found nothing he originally reported–not a single disclosure, not all his purported revelations compounded together–credible enough to warrant a single paragraph in a “mainstream” American newspaper.

America is filled with storytellers. In the South, they are legion. There’s a difference, which Ambrose evidently doesn’t recognize, between a story that is good and a story that is true, or that at least is supported by some credible evidence. Take Ambrose’s account of the Oklahoma City bombing, which consumes the first 100 pages of his book. Click here for more about that.

Another Ambrose favorite is the death of White House aide Vince Foster in July l993. Ambrose became an early acolyte of Christopher Ruddy’s, who started muckraking Foster’s death for the New York Post and then created a whole cottage industry of Foster conspiracy literature after the Murdoch tabloid dumped him. Ruddy, who recently came out with a tome outlining his own Foster researches (see Michael Isikoff’s review in Slate), is actually more restrained than Ambrose in the conclusions he draws from the various inconsistencies and anomalies in the police investigation of Foster’s death. (Click here for more on Ambrose’s unique take.) Ambrose’s claque of American admirers has included such conservative notables as American Spectator Editor in Chief Bob Tyrrell and megapundit Bob Novak. After a natter with Ambrose at an American Spectator dinner, House Speaker Newt Gingrich made noises about the need for a tough investigation of the Foster death (a position Gingrich quietly abandoned). Back in his native Britain, Ambrose’s stories helped create the impression that Clinton is a bigger crook than Nixon was. Judging from the apathetic response to attempts by Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., to get an impeachment inquiry going in the House of Representatives, most Americans would probably agree that Ambrose is out of touch with what real Americans think and how the American political system really works.

This is not to whitewash Clinton’s undoubted lies and flaws. But are Craig Livingstone and Maggie Williams really as sinister as Gordon Liddy and Chuck Colson? (Bruce Lindsey–now there’s a scary guy.) Perhaps Ambrose is not the worst British correspondent in Washington of his generation. Fleet Street veterans say that honor still belongs to the hack from a London tabloid who invented Washington stories out of whole cloth, such as a scoop that Jimmy Carter intended to grow a beard so he would look more Lincolnesque. Ambrose is a bit more credible than that. Nonetheless, even when delivered in polished Oxbridge prose, conspiracy theories remain the investigative journalism of fools.